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  • Writer's pictureRyan Hardison

"Since I Left You" and the Beauty of Sampling

"The Avalanches use so many samples to create something so indisputably their own that to accuse them of plagiarism is pointless" - English author Nick Hornby

There's always been something so incredibly fascinating to me about sampling. I honestly think it's the most original aspect of producing. The ability to construct a new harmony, melody, or rhythm pushes countless records to new creative heights. Plus, there's a certain level of inspiration and imagination that goes with sampling that I find completely exhilarating. All it takes is one note, random dialogue, a weird noise, and with the help of a turntable, sampler, or whatever device is at a producer's disposal, and there could be a revolutionary idea for a song.

It is a beautiful, complicated, and underappreciated art form that can essentially be defined as reusing a portion/section of a sound in another recording. This means anything from a Pakistani film score to spoken word poetry can be re-used, re-packaged, and sent out as something brand new by a completely different artist (with permission of course).

Getting a sample cleared is often a long and expensive process, which doesn't have a significant effect on most major artists and labels but makes it much harder for aspiring and lesser-known artists to use them in their music.

To combat this, some musicians use live instrumentation to mimic the tune of the original recording, an alternative process that makes the sample much easier to clear and in many cases gives the music a more seamless touch. Also, it's common for lesser-known producers to seek out more obscure recordings that are cheaper and have less restrictive rules.

After the sampling process is finished, the original sound could be a vastly different pitch, speed, or length, and its origin unidentifiable from the finished product. Sometimes a sample can be easily spotted, like when MC Hammer's signature classic "U Can't Touch This" borrowed the funky riff from Rick James' "Super Freak;" though oftentimes the best ones are either subtle or much less direct.

For example, GZA's "4th Chamber" produced by his cousin and fellow Wu-Tang Clan affiliate RZA, loops a section of the theme "Dharmatma Theme Music (sad)" from the 1975 Indian film Dharmatma. The gloomy feeling of this Southeast Asian sample is almost unrecognizable but its presence is instrumental in building RZA's dark shogun universe, making it one of the Wu-Tang Clan's calling cards.

By far, the most commonly sampled records are of the old-school variety with the extensive catalogs of James Brown, The Winstons, and Funkadelic offering a treasure trove of funk and soul records to use. Samples are taken from virtually every genre and decade, but songs from the '60s and '70s often have the richest instrumentals and the most tantalizing vocals, making them irresistible to samplers.

Personally, my favorite samples come from the eternally groovy Isley Brothers. Many of their songs have been heavily interpreted by various rap producers over the years. Some of their greatest sample flips include Ice Cube's classic "It Was a Good Day" and Kendrick Lamar's introspective track "i" in addition to memorable songs by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Notorious B.I.G., and Jay-Z. These tributes to the Isleys' brilliant ballads have helped ensure their place in hip-hop lore and sampling's impact on the entire industry.

Besides being the most popular genre for sampling, Hip-hop has the longest and most illustrious history with the art form. Sampling has been essential since hip-hop's foundation and creation, dating back to the drum breaks of DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash that originated the genre.

When thinking of hip-hop's assortment of outstanding samplers, J-Dilla, Madlib, Nujabes, and Pete Rock immediately come to mind as the best at their craft and the most influential. Each of them has a distinct sound and a gifted penchant for using old snippets as the bedrock for something previously thought unimaginable. There could be entire dissertations written on how their skillset takes rap songs to a transcendent level, but that's for another day.

This year alone, rap producers like Knxwledge and the Alchemist are still breaking new ground with wonderful and imaginative beats, as shown by Knxwledge's newest album "1988" and Alchemist's recent collaborations with Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs. In light of the amazing music being made nowadays, it's hard to imagine what magical concoctions could be made if producers were equipped with the same creative freedom they had in the past.

During the early years of hip-hop, in its 1980s golden age, artists and labels alike had free reign to sample pretty much however they pleased. This enabled sample-heavy production teams like The Bomb Squad, most known for their work with Public Enemy and Ice Cube, to make socially conscious and braggadocious anthems.

However, things changed drastically for artists after two monumental court cases set a bleak precedent for the industry.

After sampling The Turtles' song "You Showed Me" on their 1989 track "Transmitting Live From Mars," alternative rap trio De La Soul faced a $2.5 million lawsuit. The Turtles' founding member Mark Volman alleged that De La Soul not only stole their artistic property, but that sampling itself is just "a longer term for theft." Ironically, The Turtles didn't even write the song in question, as it was written by another '60s rock group, The Byrds; yet The Turtles reaped the full rewards of the unlicensed sample. The two sides eventually settled out of the court, with Volman and his bandmates landing a reported settlement of $1.7 million.

In the same year as the De La Soul lawsuit, another major rapper was taken to court for copyright violation. Everyone's favorite goofball Biz Markie was brought up on criminal charges for using the piano riff and hook from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" after Warner Bros. tried on his behalf to get clearance. When that failed they still included the sample anyway, resulting in a lawsuit. This case of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. had significant repercussions for subsequent music releases, but its most direct result was the removal of unrestricted freedom for sampling and the prevention of several forthcoming releases.

Instantaneously, producers like the Beastie Boys and Prince Paul were forced to reconsider and be more subtle and creative with their techniques because using the same amount of sampling fervor in their future work was bound to cost them handsomely. With sampling being the main infrastructure of hip-hop since its inception, many were fearful that these cases foreshadowed the imminent death of rap music.

Luckily, the genre is still thriving and innovating, but tons of great music has never seen the light of day due to these copyright restrictions.

Nearly thirty years after those landmark lawsuits, issues over samples have continued to prevent many notable songs from being released. Young Nudy and Playboi Carti's notable leak "Pissy Pamper" was poised to be the song of summer '19, but its premature release by hackers made it nearly impossible to clear the dreamy "Tasogare" sample. Another victim of leakers was arguably Kendrick Lamar's best song, "Cartoons & Cereal," relegating it to YouTube until the end of time.

Despite the occasional speedbumps, these court cases weren't enough to stop the inventive awesomeness of sampling, and with music being released at a rapid rate there are tons of talented producers who create meaningful, impactful records. That being said, there are a few artists who are in a league of their own.

For the past few days, I've been listening almost exclusively to The Avalanches, a group of Australian DJs, keyboardists, and samplers who range from hip-hop to dance music, landing most comfortably in plunderphonics (which is basically the same thing as sampling but roughly refers to music that consists of only samples or mostly samples).

The Avalanches are masters of sound, scrounging pretty much anything they can find and crafting fascinating music. Their artistic style consists of finding weird and obscure records, adding some magic, and ending with a sonic masterpiece.

I've been a huge fan of theirs for a while, but with the group's third studio album confirmed to be arriving soon, I've come to appreciate the bold and stunning creativity of their excellent debut project "Since I Left You." To fully understand the greatness of The Avalanches, it's crucial to know why the mere existence of "Since I Left You" is inexplicable.

At the time of the album's release, The Avalanches were a team of six youthful, eager and talented musicians: Darren Seltmann, Gordon McQuilten, Tony Di Blasi, Robbie Chater, Dexter Fabay and James De La Cruz. Originating from Melbourne, Australia, a few of them were close childhood friends, while others were added for the band's illustrious live performances. But before they became The Avalanches, these brilliant Australians originated as a much different group.

The group's origin can be traced back to 1994 when they began as Alarm 115, a riotous punk band consisting of Di Blasi, Chater, Seltmann, and their friend Manabu Etoh.

When Etoh was abruptly deported from Australia, the band disbanded without much of a trace, but this endeavor is where their obsession with vinyl records began.

In 1997, the former members of Alarm 115 began playing live shows with the addition of Fabay on turntables and McQuilten playing keyboard. For each subsequent performance, the group changed their name, beginning with the moniker Swinging Monkey Cocks and eventually landing on (and deciding to stick with) The Avalanches a few gigs later.

Later that year, the group released their debut EP "El Producto." Featuring rap-rock samples, playful rhyming, and explosive live instrumentals, much of it sounds like an amateur Beastie Boys impression. However, a few tracks on the project stood out and exhibited the group's massive potential.

In particular, the songs "Rock City" and "Run DNA" demonstrated their great ear for esoteric beats and eccentric DJ skills. Overall, their knack for weird and distorted intergalactic-style production caught the attention of local labels and assured they'd have a bright future.

In 1998, off the strength of "El Producto," The Avalanches signed with Modular Recordings, leading to the release of two more EPs, the addition of De La Cruz to the fold and plans to release their first studio album.

Since the very beginning, The Avalanches found inspiration through collecting rare records and perusing second-hand stores because they couldn't afford to make the real thing. This was especially relevant during the making of "Since I Left You." It's estimated that the group collected anywhere from 900-3500 samples for the album's production, which is a completely unfathomable number. Though each member contributed significantly to the project, Chater and Seltmann were the heart and soul of the team and produced the entire album.

For Chater and the gang, this rapid process of sample retrieval was fun and enlightening, but when it came time to release the album, they had a serious problem. With the sampling clearance laws in place and an international release planned, the band had to ensure every single sample was properly cleared or else they faced a serious financial issue. Some of the songs included were so random that nobody would've noticed their inclusion, however with tracks from high-profile artists like Madonna and Raekwon being a part of the expansive production, it was essential that everything be approved.

To add to their problems, the group failed to keep track of numerous samples used, namely the more obscure ones, since they weren't originally expecting a wide release. To combat this issue, they enlisted the help of sample clearance expert Pat "The Detective" Shannahan, which is easily one of the most random but fundamental jobs in music. With her help, The Avalanches were able to clear the vast majority of the album's samples and discard the few remaining unknown and unclearable samples.

After solving the sample fiasco and deciding on the last-minute inclusion of the disco-influenced dance track "Electricity," "Since I Left You" was officially released on November 27, 2000.

The first time I heard this album was several years ago and at a time in my life where I rarely ventured outside the realm of mainstream music. This was my first exposure to plunderphonics and the qualities that make sampling feel so incredible. There was this instant emotional connection between me and pretty much every song on "Since I Left You" that felt deeply personal.

I was so amazed at the inconceivable patterns that I became stuck in a trance. So I kept on playing this memory-producing, goosebump-inducing soundtrack because on each listen, I would find new things to love and further grasp that it's unlike anything I've heard then or since.

The reason why I rave at its originality is that I can confidently say nobody else on this planet could have constructed an album quite like this. It wasn't the first plunderphonics album or the last, yet the way The Avalanches somehow manage to construct an intriguing story by using random puzzle pieces will forever be fascinating. The entire tracklist is layered in such a delicate and obsessive way that each song flows into the next one and the result is always perfect euphony. It's like being guided on a journey with every aspect of human emotion spanning from joy to reflection displayed in the most visionary way possible.

The best way to describe the feeling of "Since I Left You" is by comparing it to staring through a kaleidoscope for the very first time or spotting a shooting star. It's such an incredible auditory experience that it's hard not to feel a childlike sense of awe and excitement at every turn.

With each song so powerful and cutting, it's hard to choose a favorite. But the song most symbolic of The Avalanches' prowess as record-collecting maniacs is the album's title track. As "Since I Left You" opens the project, it perfectly sets the tone by showing the group's extensive sampling range. The song gets its soothing guitar and flute melodies from two songs by jazz artist Tony Mottola, "Aneme E Core" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" respectively and angelic vocals from "The Sky's the Limit" courtesy of '60s R&B quartet The Duprees.

After the initial thirty seconds of Mottola's intimate guitar tune and The Duprees' doo-wop harmonies, the listener is greeted with the line "welcome to paradise" from the 1986 TV movie Club Med. The listener is placed in their dream-worthy paradise as it sounds like you're lounging on a big, beautiful cruise ship, making it a welcoming opener for this weird and wondrous journey.

Once the stage is set, the song's defining moment is its emotional yet uplifting lyrics from "Everyday" by The Main Attraction. The continuously looped snippet of "Since I left you, I found the world so new" recounts a woman splitting from her lover. Though the lyrics can't help but be somber, it's mainly a triumphant statement about moving on to bigger and better things. Also, it amplifies one of the group's greatest strengths: the ability to employ voices as percussion instruments and make them an essential part of the beat. On top of that, German organist Klaus Wunderlich's "Let's Do the Latin Hustle" is a crucial part of the song, adding to the illusion and atmosphere of a grand, romantic vacation.

In someone else's hands, it might sound overwhelming, like you're listening to an entire record store collection simultaneously. However, with masterful direction from The Avalanches, everything somehow fits together.

Throughout the album, The Avalanches elicit various emotional reactions and weigh various moods. There's an excellent balance between melancholic ballads ("Tonight" & "Pablo's Cruise"), energetic funk-laced anthems ("Radio"& "A Different Feeling"), and heavenly melodic compositions ("Etoh" & "Little Journey").

With such an oddball supporting cast of samples, it's a given that the album is filled with weird and wild moments, and none are stranger than "Frontier Psychiatrist." The song's chaotic yet soothing composition prominently features a horse neighing and recordings from a skit by Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster. On paper, this combination sounds demented, but somehow it's one of their most revered and imaginative tracks.

Another highlight is "Two Hearts in 3/4 Time," which is a voyage so soothing that you can close your eyes and envision your own Shangri-la during its succinct 3-minute runtime.

The whole project is so soothing and seamless that by the time you reach the album's glossy finisher "Extra Kings," it'll feel like no time's passed at all. This track leaves with the parting message of "I'm trying, but I just can't get you / Since the day I left you" from The Osmonds' "Let Me In." This line directly recalls the theme begun by "Since I Left You" and is the most sentimental way imaginable to close the story.

Riding off the highs of this exceptional album, I'm sure every passionate fan was eager to hear what was next and the group was prepared to set sail on another grand adventure. But sadly, reality sank in for The Avalanches.

As ardent perfectionists, it was nearly impossible for this group to come up with a satisfying sophomore album that matched the beauty and detail of their outstanding introduction. The process ended up being so difficult that it broke most of the group apart.

Eventually, after 16 tumultuous years filled with sporadic lineup changes, Chater's three-year battle with a mysterious auto-immune disease, and a failed psychedelic animation project, Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi released the band's second album "Wildflower." Unlike their debut, "Wildflower" features a variety of memorable guests, including rappers Danny Brown and Camp Lo and crooners Toro Y Moi and Father John Misty.

"Wildflower" was an incredibly emotional and satisfying return for The Avalanches, filled with plenty of love and joy. However, the uniqueness, ingenuity, and immense replay value of "Since I Left You" makes it the superior album.

After playing it once more yesterday, it again became clear that they belong in the same league as music's most elite samplers, and their magnum opus, "Since I Left You" is one the greatest albums ever.

So on this beautiful day, if you have some free time, I suggest you lay down somewhere, press play on this album, close your eyes, and just let it ride out. Discover how it makes you feel, see what it inspires you to imagine, and try to understand the essence of its beauty.

May the art of sampling last forever.

If you'd like to learn more about "Since I Left You" or the colossal variety of samples used, one diligent YouTuber compiled most album's samples in a very informative video:

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